A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire

A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire

by Fletcher Pratt


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A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire by Fletcher Pratt

The US Civil War was one of the most terrible of human conflicts. It was a time of violent hatreds, dishonest profiteering, huge sacrifices and almost inhuman bravery. It was a time of destruction, of hope, of bitterness and love. It was America's greatest ordeal and a time when as a young and powerful nation, the United States flared into violence over the fierce issues of slavery and secession! Here, in one volume, is that flaming story. First published in 1935, this book has withstood the test of time to become one of the classics on the American civil war. Written in a fresh and invigorating style, it comes to exciting life through the dynamic personalities of the men who led the struggle: Grant, Davis, Sheridan, Thomas, Sherman, Lee and Lincoln.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780464987512
Publisher: Blurb
Publication date: 10/08/2018
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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A Short History of the Civil War

Ordeal by Fire

By Fletcher Pratt

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-32004-5



THE date—end of February, 1861. Current meteorological condition—bad, with a sloppy drizzle of rain. The place—the "bridal suite" of a Philadelphia hotel, a room of red plush and antimacassars, whose prevailing odor was composed in equal parts of fustiness and petroleum, since the lamp was smoking. It was night.

Judd, the political hack, a vague man with fat hands, came in, accompanied by a full-bearded gentleman whom he introduced as Pinkerton, the Illinois detective. There were only two chairs; the visitors sat on the bed and Judd chewed tobacco while they discoursed of a plot to assassinate the President-elect on the way through Baltimore, the train to be held up for the purpose by a gang of plug-uglies called "blood-tubs." This tallied with the warning Seward, the Secretary of State-to-be, had sent on from Washington the day before, and with the letter from General Scott; the matter was evidently to be taken seriously. Asked his advice, the detective suggested sending the President through to Washington at once, without warning, on a one-car special he had taken the liberty of ordering—

"I can't go tonight," said Lincoln, decisively. "I have promised to raise the flag over Independence Hall for Washington's Birthday tomorrow morning and to visit the legislature at Harrisburg."

They tried to argue with him. John Nicolay, that unobtrusive but inevitable secretary, broke it up by arriving with a batch of telegrams, the most important of which contained the text of Jefferson Davis' inaugural address. The man had been clever enough not to mention slavery; it was all noble sentiments and righteous indignation—"elections held under the threat of military power," "despotic sectional majority," "nothing left but to prepare for war." No olive branch—was the man mad enough to think he could carry things through with the high hand? "Irrepressible conflict," quoted someone, Lincoln was drawn into the discussion, and the detective and his plot shunted out of it.

Pinkerton adjourned to the next room with Judd and sent out for Franciscus of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a man from the American Telegraph Company. The four of them cooked up a plan of action, got hold of the pale, efficient Nicolay, and after some difficulty persuaded Lincoln to fall in with it. In the morning, the flag-raising and visit to the legislature passed off on schedule. As soon as the handshaking was over, the President-elect drove to the governor's mansion, where they muffled him in a Scottish shawl and flat hat, then hustled him out the servants' door and by back alleys to a special train for Philadelphia. At the same moment Franciscus' men cut the wires leading out of Harrisburg and stopped railroad traffic; the town was isolated. In Philadelphia the little group stumbled across the tracks in the outer yards and Lincoln boarded the ordinary Washington sleeper. He took the middle section of three that had been reserved under false names, with Pinkerton men in the other two, sitting awake in the dark with revolvers in their laps. Unnecessary; the only halt at Baltimore was when the inspectors came down the line, tapping the wheels, and at six in the morning Lincoln was safe in Willard's Hotel.

Seward called in the afternoon, full of sound and fury. He had some changes to suggest in the inaugural, and was disposed to object to the presence of Salmon P. Chase in the Cabinet. The conservative wing of the party, of which he was the mouthpiece, could never stand that "western wild man." Before the interview was ended there arrived that king of all doughfaces, Mr. Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts who, as manager for the Breckinridge wing of the Democrats, had been in Charleston through December. A Job's comforter—"Sir, they are decidedly in earnest. Vigilance committees have expelled every Northerner in the state, including harmless females of the best disposition. Nothing can withhold them, sir, nothing. The Union is destroyed, de facto."

Later, he added privately to Seward that he had not told the worst for fear of upsetting Mr. Lincoln, of whose personal courage he entertained some doubt. There was a secret organization among the Carolinans called the Minute Men, admission to which was gained by paying a dollar and swearing to be in Washington on March 4 with rifle and revolver, ready to prevent the inauguration of the abolitionist President. Seward replied that although Lincoln was a simple Susan he believed him to be a brave man, and capped Cushing's tale with that of the Alabama conspiracy to burn the Capitol and Treasury. The two heads wagged dolefully over it half the night, but without arriving at any remedy; probably neither man trusted the other.

On Monday President Buchanan made his duty call, and the two chief executives exchanged compliments. The retiring head of the state looked aged and somewhat haggard. Over the week-end he had been the victim of a racking discussion with the South Carolina commissioners, in which they pressed him so fiercely about his implied promise to yield up Fort Sumter, which was all the national government held in their state, that he burst out at them, "You don't give me time to consider; you don't give me time to say my prayers. I always say my prayers when required to act on any great state affair," and they gazed at each other, uncomfortable and ashamed. Poor old man, he was breaking up, ungracefully—another month of it would kill him. The world spun too giddily for a President who wished to consult God and then compromise with Mammon, and he could no longer trust his Cabinet. It had become certain that Secretary Floyd of the War Department had been selling the secessionists arms from the Federal arsenals. The Treasury had been left in a terrific jam by another secessionist; the government was effectively bankrupt, no money to pay official salaries. Senator Slidell had to smuggle his trunk out at night, being unable to meet his board bill.

Wednesday came the official receptions with flowers and a good deal of oratory. Senator Douglas, who had come so near being President Douglas, remained behind the rest to make an impassioned plea for conciliation of the South. Lincoln asked him what kind of conciliation he meant; he replied by fetching out a document from the peace conference headed by "that old buffer Tyler, reappeared in the ancient cerements of his forgotten grave," which offered the extension of slavery to the territories and a constitutional amendment forbidding Congress to touch slavery thenceforth. Lincoln said no on the territories, the conscience of the North was up, but he was willing to try the amendment. The next morning it was pushed through both houses with lightning speed by united efforts of the Republicans and Douglas Democrats, but that same afternoon the Louisiana senators resigned and the South Carolina commissioners let Seward know that the least they would accept was peaceful separation. No compromise.

In the evening there was a dinner with General Scott and some of the Republican leaders. The general tone was despair—Merrill of Ohio, who had business connections South, had been writing to call in debts and exhibited two of the replies:

"I promise to pay, five minutes after demand, to any northern Abolitionist, the same coin in which we paid John Brown."

"I cannot return the goods, for they are already sold and the money invested in muskets to shoot you damn Yankees."

Conkling and Kennedy of New York had seen the papers; their city was in a turmoil; stocks selling at fractions, and the council considering a proposal to declare New York a free city, maintaining trade relations with both the old republic and the new. Harper's Weekly had a vicious cartoon of the "flight of the President from Harrisburg in a fit of ague"; the Herald announced that in Georgia they were taking oaths to wear no clothes produced under the regime of the "third-rate slang-whanging lawyer and his gang of "Black Republicans." Lincoln looked round the table and observed that he would like to see some of the Georgia gentlemen clad in costumes produced in their own state, that is, a shirt-collar and a pair of spurs, and the gloom dissolved in snickers.

Next day there was a warning letter about another plot— twenty-five Texans this time, coming to break up the inaugural parade and poignard the President in his carriage. Washington was outwardly quiet, but filled with whispered alarms. A Delaware member called to say he had overheard his wife's maid telling another nigger she was going to slap her mistress' face on March fourth; he seemed to feel that Lincoln should do something about it. The President-elect got rid of him and sat down to break the seal on a note just arrived from Seward. It was the worst possible; the Secretary-to-be felt slighted, had changed his mind about coming into the Cabinet, did not think he could work harmoniously with so radical a man as Mr. Chase. That called for more conferences and wire-pulling, interrupted by a serenade from an earnest but none too competent assemblage of brass musicians. The Seward business took up most of Saturday as well without reaching an end; Sunday was spent quietly.

The inaugural day dawned cold and melancholy, with low-hung clouds and a fine powder of rain. The procession was neither long nor brilliant; the foreign embassies shaved their attendance to a bare representation, fearing trouble, and the crowds along the sidewalk were somber. Patrols of cavalry were stationed in the cross-streets as the Presidential carriage passed, exhibiting menacing bright weapons. The windows of the Capitol were occupied by sharpshooters, and just visible on the crest of the hill opposite was the muted gleam of a battery of artillery, ready for anything.

Under such auspices, in this atmosphere of passion, ruin and distrust, Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, stood up to pronounce his inaugural address;

"The apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern states that by the accession of a Republican administration, their property and their security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.

"I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the union of these states is perpetual. It is safe to assert that no government ever had a provision in its organic law for its termination. No state upon its mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union. I therefore consider that the Union is unbroken and shall take care that the laws of the Union are faithfully executed in all the states.

"Physically speaking, we cannot separate. The different parts of our country must remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible to make that intercourse more advantageous after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws?

"But in your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy this government, while I have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it."

... Away down in the Carolinas a rocket traced its comet of fire up the night from the water-battery of Fort Moultrie and burst in a rain of stars. At the sound of the cannon that opened against Fort Sumter the bells of Charleston all pealed forth joyfully and the citizens left their beds to rush into the streets and congratulate each other that the war had begun.



THE Union was destroyed. An uneasy thrill went through the North; a thrill of numbed surprise at feeling the active, murderous malignance of men who only yesterday had been relatives—"Incredible that they mean war," thought George Ticknor; thrill of grief and resignation—"Let the erring sisters go," said old Greeley of the Tribune; thrill of formless, passionate anger—"Set a price on every rebel head and hang them as fast as caught," demanded the Philadelphia Gazette. Washington was all confusion and dismay, full of men in top-hats, clutching at straws. Seward wanted to reunite the Union by declaring war on France and Spain; Arch Dixon, the blue-grass philosopher, to divide it into three allied leagues of states, eastern, western, southern; Judge Campbell to have the English ambassador arbitrate. Too late, too late—the cannon were muttering in Charleston Harbor, theirs alone the arbitrament now, and Lincoln was calling on the states to maintain the honor, dignity and existence of the United States.

The Union was destroyed. North Carolina refused her troops, Kentucky hers. Arkansas tumbled into secession at the call. Missouri's governor would send "no men to furnish or carry on such an unholy crusade"; John Bell's voice, Bell of Tennessee, who had stood for the presidency on a platform of keeping the Union, was "a clarion call—To arms! and repel the base invaders!" John Tyler, ex-President of the United States, emerged for the last time from the cerements of his forgotten grave to lead Virginia out of a nation pinned together with bayonets. In three weeks the Confederacy's territory doubled. Robert Lee, the best general in the service, walked all night among the roses of Arlington, then chose Virginia as his country and refused the leadership of the national armies. Lincoln could only appoint McDowell, second (or twenty-fifth) best. Down went the Union flag at Fort Sumter; up went the rebel flag at Mount Vernon. The Virginians built a boom at Norfolk harbor and old Commodore McCauley had to send six splendid warships and the nation's best naval station up in flames or see them taken. The army's base at Harpers Ferry followed, blown up, burned down. The capital was like a graveyard; Mr. Chittenden found men piling sandbags at the Treasury windows. General Beauregard was coming north by express-train with 6,000 South Carolinans to take the city, and the Spanish ambassador thought enough of his chances to ask for a safe-conduct. The end of the world.

But in the North, 100,000 marching men clapped their hands on musket-butts and swore it was not so:

"... this teeming and turbulent city; At dead of night, at news from the south Struck with clenched fist the pavement."

When the war news came to Boston bells tolled the day long; before sunset 3,000 soldiers had mustered. The jury walked from the Milwaukee court to enlist, with the judge for a captain. Ohio sent up twenty-one regiments, though her share was thirteen. The Germans of St. Louis mustered in their Turner Halls and sang songs of the '48. New York exchanges were deserted; the businessmen were with two hundred and fifty thousand others in Union Square, hearing the councilors who had wished the city's secession swear devotion to the old flag; the Seventh marched down Broadway through a tempest of cheering two miles long. "Only those who saw it could understand the enthusiasm of that hour. It was worth a life, that march," thought Theodore Winthrop, who gave no less than a life for it, among the pines of Big Bethel, some thousand hours later. No more of incredulity or resignation; in a moment, for a moment, all differences were dead. Follow the flag or wear petticoats. The North has one heart and one mind for war.


Excerpted from A Short History of the Civil War by Fletcher Pratt. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Cry Havoc,
2. The Twilight Zone,
3. First Interlude,
4. The Child of Fortune,
5. Disaster in the Scrub,
6. Portrait in Four Tones of Red,
7. Scott's Anaconda,
8. Allegro Marziale,
9. Experiment in Tauromachy,
10. Varanus Salvator,
11. Black Week,
12. The Ironclad Carondelet,
13. Under Two Standards,
14. The Dolor of the Crescent,
15. Somebody's Hand Shook,
16. Water Is More Desirable Than Blood,
17. Second Interlude,
18. The Idiot's Tale,
19. Seven Times Against the City,
20. The Summer of Discontent,
21. Forever Free,
22. Maryland, My Maryland,
23. The Dark Height,
24. The Dithyramb of Shiva,
25. The Absolute Masterpiece,
26. Fevered Interlude,
27. When the Wave Broke,
28. The Revolt of the Turtle,
29. Torquemada?,
30. Fourth Interlude,
31. Bragg is a Good Dog,
32. ... But Holdfast Is Better,
33. The Anaconda Again,
34. Autumn Maneuvers,
35. The Indecisiveness of Decisions,
36. The Devil Is Let Loose,
37. Morituri Te Salutent,
38. The Feud of the Titans,
39. Suspense,
40. Morning Star,
41. The Ghost of 1812,
42. Glory, Hallelujah!,
43. Confound Their Politics,
44. Bring the Good Old Bugle, Boys,
45. Under the Iron Rod,
46. Here They Come,
47. Final Interlude,
48. Evening Star,

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A Short History of the Civil War; Ordeal by Fire 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
dLore More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite history of the Civil War for light reading. I love the way the author phrases things, the words that I have to look up, and the little character sketches. It delves into the philosophy of government a little, but not too much.
biff More than 1 year ago
Fletcher Pratt was one of America's leading authorities on naval & civil war history and his short history is a great read. He writes a book on the conflict thant is dynamic & exciting. Fresh & authentic details, excellent maps demonstrating main points of battle lines, flashes of insight and adding details for understanding the main characters. The book is bodly written & offers a great panorama on this bloody & tragic conflict. Would be excellent for review, high schools and research. I feel is fairly balanced on both sides of conflict.